This is the first installment on Alcohol and the Theravada Buddhist World.
My curiosity into this topic was first piqued when I saw an infographic on Facebook that ranked alcohol consumption among ASEAN countries: Burma was second to last, only rivaled by Indonesia, a Muslim country. My general impression was that Burma’s relative isolation, alongside Theravada Buddhism — more orthodox than its Tibetan and Mahayana counterparts (Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism have more lenient perspectives on alcohol consumption)–was the underlying driving force, the explanation for this observation.
It wasn’t without context though. This paralleled my own experience, growing up in a Burmese Theravada Buddhist family. Simply put, I was raised in a dry household. Alcohol never featured as a part of family gatherings or meals; so much so that even family weddings served apple cider, not wine or champagne. Rowdy uncles singing karaoke while inebriated didn’t feature as part of my childhood, as it did for many of my Asian American friends. Drinking was never actively discouraged, but it was always understood to be taboo, not even questioned let alone discussed.
It wasn’t until college that I first encountered alcohol, let alone try it. By my own admission, I have had a drink here or there, but very infrequently, and only in social settings. It’s practically unavoidable as a twenty-something-year-old living in the 21st century, lest I be an outcast. But I’ve always been aware that drinking is at odds with my own faith, making it difficult to reconcile the two. Especially when Buddhism has informed other choices and actions I’ve made in my life, and is a religion I hold in high esteem.
So I decided to explore whether that was the case, whether my experience, raised in a conventional Burmese Buddhist family, was mirrored in other majority Theravada Buddhist countries: Cambodia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Laos. Turns out that wasn’t the case. Luckily, there was a wealth of data available on the World Health Organization’s Global Information System on Alcohol and Health (GISAH) [link].
But as Burma opens its doors to the outside world, there seems to be a loosening of these social mores. For instance, on social media, I’ve noticed a surge of Burmese youths (often around my age or younger), both friends and relatives alike, casually drinking alcohol in social settings. I know it’s all conjectural, but it’s become big enough of an issue that’s been noticed, with headlines on Myanmar Times asking: “Are young men drinking too much beer?” [link] and the Minister for Health, Dr. Pe Thet Khin, speaking before Parliament (just days ago, in fact) on legislation to restrict alcohol consumption [link].
In the following days, I’ll be publishing a series of posts exploring this further. So I suppose this is just an introduction, the first in an installment on this subject.